When Dario Garcia started his maintenance apprenticeship with SageGlass in Faribault, he was “not mechanically inclined or anything of that nature,” as he puts it. Now, he’s got his sights set on an engineering position.

Garcia is about three weeks from graduation at South Central College in Faribault. At that time, he’ll move from his maintenance apprentice program to a full-time maintenance role at SageGlass, with his supervisors discussing more additional tasks and responsibilities for him in the near future.

Eventually, he’d like to get his engineering degree and move into an engineering position. That’s a big jump for someone who moved to the area with no professional connections or mechanical background, but it’s exactly what employers in the area would like to see more of.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s staff was in Faribault on Wednesday for a roundtable discussion on educating and training Minnesota’s workforce.

U.S. consulting company Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute released a study in 2018 that estimated 2.4 million positions would be left unfilled between 2018 and 2028 due to a skills gap. According to the study, positions in digital talent, skilled production and operational managers may be three times as difficult to fill in the next three years.

“We’re embarking on a workforce shortage where a lot of students out there might not have the necessary skills that match up with the jobs that are available on the market today,” Rommel Lee, Klobuchar’s outreach director, said Wednesday.

Some companies and people are trying to tackle that problem on a local level.

SageGlass is just one company with an apprenticeship program. On Wednesday, South Central College representatives spoke about the school’s apprenticeship and internship programs and how they look to connect with local companies.

Apprenticeship programs usually last one to six years and give workers on-the-job training in a “learn-while-you-earn” model accompanied by classes that combine classroom and hands-on learning, according to the United States Department of Labor.

Minnesota Employment and Economic Development Workforce Strategy Consultant Kenneth Johnson said apprenticeship programs are successful because they teach workers what they need to know, when they need to learn it, with “constant mentoring and growth and development.”

“College is great for that, but there’s no substitute for working with someone who is an expert,” Johnson said.

Klobuchar’s staff was in town as part of a two-day tour of southern and western Minnesota to plug the American Apprenticeship Act, which Klobuchar and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced last month.

The bill would provide funding to states to create or expand tuition assistance programs for people in apprenticeship programs, Klobuchar has also supported Apprenticeships and Jobs Training Act and Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs (LEAP) Act, which would provide tax credits to employers that hire registered apprentices.

After a tour of South Central College in Faribault, the senator’s staff was off to South Central’s North Mankato location and Riverland Community College in Albert Lea. On Thursday, they visited Minnesota West Community and Technical Colleges in Jackson and Pipestone and Ridgewater College in Willmar.

Looking beyond jobs

Conversation didn’t stop at apprenticeships Wednesday. Those in attendance discussed other ways to help grow the workforce, including housing, public transportation and on-site and nightshift daycare service so parents can adjust to flexible work schedules.

“I always say ‘what was old is new again,’ because some of the concepts that are being discussed now go beyond just building the skills,” Faribault Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said. “But do we have places for these employees to live, what else could we be doing to attract the … people to the area that want to work in these jobs? The conversations are growing, the conversations are very dynamic, and it’s very interesting to see these employers come together sitting around the table, saying, ‘how can we solve this together?’”

South Central College President Annette Parker said the average age of students at the college is between 26 and 29 years old, increasing the need for childcare, which is a large issue, especially locally. According to a recent study by the University of Minnesota, Rice County ranks 77th of 87 counties in the state for quantity of child care.

Affordable housing availability is also an issue in the area. A 2018 housing study conducted for the city of Faribault by Maxfield Research reported a rental vacancy rate of just 0.8 percent in Faribault.

Solutions won’t come immediately from a one-hour roundtable discussion, but the conversations will help bridge the skills gap and increase Minnesota’s workforce.

Said Kuennen, “These are the conversations that we’re having around workforce because it’s people, and what do people need?”